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Bill Thayer

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They're Etruscan, but what are they?

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Many people call them "vie cave": hollowed-out roads.
Here you see the beginning of the via cava di Poggio Cane.

A loose network of 15 obviously artificial rock cuts radiates outwards from the town of Pitigliano, including sections cut as much as 25 meters down thru rock: the chisel marks are visible everywhere. Not wide enough for a cart to pass comfortably, nor paved, nor even graded, they do sometimes include carved steps, and often what appear to be water channels: from one to four at any one place.

Whatever they are, there is general agreement that these "tagliate" (literally, "cuts") were carved out of the tufa by the Etruscans: occasional brief inscriptions have apparently been found, although I have seen none, and the illustrated books that speak of such do not show any. The cuts are not at all straight, as one might expect of a road; nor do they appear to lead anywhere in particular. A few tombs and caves give onto some of the vie cave, but they are hardly an essential characteristic of most.

A later Christian age seems to have felt a need to "baptize" many of these numinous places with crosses or attractive small shrines.

[image ALT: A path thru two steep rock faces some 10 meters tall. The rock face on the left has fallen over the path, and is precariously held in place by the other. A grilled niche in it includes a fresco, apparently of St. Joseph. It is an edicola, or wayside shrine, in the Via Cava S. Giuseppe, near Pitigliano, Tuscany (central Italy).]
One of these shrines or edicole, in the via cava S. Giuseppe.

Needless to say, these gigantic works, up to a mile long, are a fertile field for theories, from the most mundane to the most esoteric: here general agreement is quite absent. I'm still sorting out my own ideas — temporarily, I think they might have been quarries​a — but a map and some more pictures will appear here from time to time.

[image ALT: A rock-cut path about 1 meter wide, with a series of 20 or so foot-sized steps carved out of a central rock channel.]

A section of the via cava del Gradone.


a Months after I wrote this I was delighted to be alerted to this fascinating page of photos and text describing a similar phenomenon in Malta, G.C., at the site of Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, identified by the authors as an ancient quarrying scheme.

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Page updated: 27 Apr 20